Young actors dressed as Red Guards throw eggs in a scene in Hong Kong film 'Ten Years'
Hong Kong - AFP
In Hong Kong, a woman sets herself on fire in protest, a taxi driver despairs at the eradication of the local language and young children in military uniform prowl the streets, echoing the horrors of China's Cultural Revolution.
But this is not the past, it is Hong Kong in 2025 as portrayed in the movie "Ten Years", which has been a box office hit locally -- despite some cinemas refusing to show it -- and has raised hackles in China.
The five-part movie made by young Hong Kong directors taps residents' worst fears for the future of the semi-autonomous territory as Beijing's grip tightens.
Its sell-out screenings have come against an increasingly turbulent backdrop of running battles between young protesters and police, and the detention in China of five booksellers critical of Beijing, as concern grows that Hong Kong's long-cherished freedoms are dying.
Since its release at the end of December, the movie, made for just HK$500,000 ($64,000), has earned an unexpected HK$6 million and is now a "best film" contender at the Hong Kong Film Awards on April 3.
"The movie is giving a voice to the unexpressed sentiment of Hong Kongers," director Ng Ka-leung, 34, told AFP.
"I wanted to use the film to respond to some questions I wanted answered, including whether or not Hong Kong has a way out, and how would Hong Kong change."
Ng's segment "Egg Man" portrays an egg vendor under attack from young "red guards" seeking to denounce citizens.
China has flexed its muscles in response.
Broadcasts of the Hong Kong Film Awards on the mainland have been pulled, with the movie's nomination widely believed to be the reason.
China's state-run Global Times newspaper hit out at the film as "totally absurd" and a "virus of the mind".
Ng suspects political motivations were behind the difficulty in getting the film a decent run in Hong Kong cinemas.
"Why wouldn't cinemas consider our movie, which was profitable and when lots of people still wanted to see it?" he questioned.
- Audience in tears -
The film's five segments take a no-holds-barred approach to their vision of Hong Kong, with the image of an elderly woman dousing herself in petrol and setting herself on fire particularly hard-hitting.
"If we recognise the harshness of reality, that Hong Kong truly has a problem, then we can think of a way out of this situation," Kiwi Chow, director of the "Self-Immolator" segment told AFP.
Self-immolation, which activists in Tibet have used to protest against Beijing's ironclad control there, is unheard of in Hong Kong.
"I really don't want my story to come true," Chow, 37, said.
Cinema audiences have watched "Ten Years" in stunned silence, some of them moved to tears.
"The movie has left a big impression on me because it shows many scenes which are similar to events in Hong Kong now," university student Thomson Chan, 21, told AFP after one screening.
"I feel what's predicted (in the film) will happen."
One 53-year-old who wanted to remain anonymous said he felt the future "would be even worse than the movie".
The city's freedoms are protected by a deal made with Britain when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, but there is now growing anxiety that China is stamping its mark on the territory, from politics to education and the media.
Film critics say the public wants to see those issues directly addressed.
"There are some political movies in Hong Kong, but they use metaphors and indirect ways to tell the story," Hong Kong film critic Dominic Li told AFP.
"(In) 'Ten Years', they are very direct and strike at the present situation of Hong Kong," he added.
"These five young directors showed bravery in making a film about very sensitive issues."
- 'Creativity without fear' -
The directors want to bring the film to an international audience -- seats for the movie were sold out at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and it will also be screened in Taiwan.
The movie will be shown again in Hong Kong at 30 community screenings on April 1 due to popular demand and difficulty in finding it at mainstream cinemas.
With Hong Kong filmmakers increasingly turning to the mainland for funding, many are taking pains to ensure their movies will be approved by Chinese censors.
But director Jevons Au, 35, said they should be doing the opposite if the independent voice of the city's film industry is to survive.
Au's segment "Dialect" shows a taxi driver who speaks only Cantonese, used by the vast majority of the city's residents, struggling to communicate with irate passengers who want to speak Mandarin, the official language of mainland China.
"Money and resources aren't the biggest problem. The issue is whether or not we can continue to be creative without fear," he said.